Revolutionary Measures

The future of advertising – no ads at all

Aggressive marketing campaigns are common, thi...

Think about it – what was the last advert you saw that you really remember or which made you take action? The likelihood is that nothing comes immediately to mind. This is ironic as we are now surrounded by more and more ads, whether on the internet, TV or billboards. And they should be increasingly better targeted given that advertisers can see our browsing history, previous searches and even what we Like on Facebook.

Why don’t we remember ads? I think there are three reasons. Firstly, we’re getting better at blanking them out ourselves. Our brains are struggling to cope with the huge amount of information around us, and are therefore becoming more ruthless and ignoring things that aren’t relevant.

Secondly, as well as giving us greater opportunities to see ads, technology is also helping us to skip them. Most of us fast forward through the ads on recorded programmes, and given that more TV is no longer watched live (or on a TV), we can save time by avoiding commercial breaks. Even if you begin watching a recording of a programme on ITV 15 minutes after it starts, you’ll catch up by the end, without missing anything but the ads. Websites are also waking up to the idea that you can offer a premium, ad free product to increase revenues. YouTube is looking at subscription model that means you don’t have to see any ads on the site, for example.

Finally, most ads aren’t actually that interesting anymore. Big budget TV ads still exist, but the vast majority are much more basic and programmatic – you do a search for a toaster, and small, mostly text-based ads then follow your round the internet for a week, appearing on every page you visit for example. The creativity is more in the algorithm that understands your intent, finds a corresponding ad and then keeps tracking you from site to site. It would be physically impossible for the advertiser to create hundreds of creative ads telling you about how their toaster will change your life – there simply isn’t the time or space to do it.

I’m sure there are wonderful long form TV ads out there, but apart from the Christmas campaigns (which have become part of the festive experience) I’m not watching them, and I don’t know who else is either. There don’t appear to be ads that tell your friends about, like the Tango, Guinness or Levis campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s. Too many TV or billboard ads are generic or ‘good enough’ in the eyes of the client, rather than pushing the boundaries. Targeting is replacing creativity as the key factor in success, so what does this mean for the advertising industry?

It could mean the end of ads as we know it. Brands are looking for different ways to engage with customers, so are putting their money into sponsorship of programmes, sports and events, content marketing and campaigns on social media. However swapping the TV ads you’ve always done for a Facebook or YouTube-based programme requires a leap of faith from marketing directors and ad planners alike. At the moment many have added the internet to their campaigns, for example sharing their ads on their own site, Facebook and YouTube and using cut down versions for internet advertising.

However I think that there’s going to be a moment when the advertising industry becomes ‘digital first’ and the swashbuckling creatives and Don Drapers will be replaced by data scientists and content marketers who can use technology to understand and reach audiences, as opposed to untargeted TV ads that may win prizes for creativity but don’t deliver ROI. In many ways this will be a shame, but shows that whatever industry you are in, digital can and will disrupt everything you do.

April 15, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Up Periscope?

I’ve mentioned previously that Twitter is at a bit of a crossroads. Compared to its social media brethren Facebook and LinkedIn it has found it hard to make the move from a network with lots of users to a viable business making significant profits. Twitter may have grown revenues to $1.4 billion in its 2014 financial year, but it is dwarfed by Facebook, and made a net loss. It even lost 20 million users in the last quarter of the year.

English: Up periscope!

Therefore it has been looking around for ways of increasing both engagement and revenues. Given that the 140 character limit on tweets is more than a little stifling, it has made a big bet on video – first with Vines and now with Periscope. With Vines being extremely short (essentially 6 second loops) they at least fitted in with the stripped down nature of Twitter.

However Periscope is something much more long form. Essentially it is an app that lets you live stream pictures from your mobile phone, in real-time, to your followers. It isn’t a new idea – apps such as Bambuser and Livestream have allowed this before. Even more recently Meerkat was the hit of the SXSW festival and raised $12m in funding, announced on the day that Periscope launched. As is the way of cool free new stuff, Periscope has quickly become wildly popular (in social media land at least). This is partly due to its ease of use, but probably more to the prevalence of wifi networks and all you can eat 3G/4G data packages that mean live streaming isn’t going to run up huge bills.

Unlike Vines, which have not really moved beyond being a niche application, there is obviously a lot of potential in live streaming, provided that Twitter can capitalise on its early mover advantage over the likes of Facebook. I can see five ways it can be easily used.

1. Journalism
We live in a real-time news cycle, driven by the likes of Twitter. Therefore it makes a lot of sense to add video to tweets from a press conference or the scene of a breaking story. It won’t replace having a full camera crew on hand, but will fill the gap between recording and going live. And it will be a boon to citizen journalists and members of the public, giving them another way of recording and sharing stories.

2. Adding to the buzz around events
Twitter works really well at collating and sharing what is happening at events such as conferences. By creating a hashtag and encouraging its use, information and opinions can be quickly published and, most importantly, found easily. It is even possible to skip the conference altogether and just follow the key points on Twitter. Expect conference organisers to embrace Periscope and encourage its use to give a fuller insight into events.

3. Sharing sports events
Much of the internet is driven by either porn or sports, and the X-rated opportunities for Periscope are pretty obvious. I presume Twitter will be quick to crack down on them, but the fact that you can live stream from a sporting event has more lasting possibilities. On one hand it will enable people to share football matches as they happen (expect screams of indignation from rights holders), but more importantly it will let niche sports get their coverage to more people, while using a minimum of infrastructure and at low cost.

4. Catching out celebrities/politicians
I’ll wager that it’ll be about a week before the first politician is caught saying something stupid/offensive while being live streamed. And, unlike Meerkat, Periscope video streams are kept for 24 hours, meaning that the evidence will be there to be shared, retweeted and generally distributed to the world. Celebrities are likely to fall into the same trap – expect people to use live streaming to replace selfies and photo bombing as a way of interacting with/embarrassing their heroes.

5. Live streaming cats
If cat videos are the most popular things on YouTube, it won’t be long before someone puts their cat on Periscope, either live streaming everything they do or finding a way of rigging up a camera to them to show everything they are doing.

Time will tell if Periscope actually does provide an extra dimension (and revenue earner) to Twitter. However, given I’ve seen people taking photos of all their meals and putting them on Facebook, be prepared for a combination of a lot of mundane content (and complaints from phone users who rack up huge bills) in the early days before it potentially finds its place.

 

April 1, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Why we don’t want discussion with our morning coffee

When you think of Starbucks, the first thing that comes to mind is not discussions about race. So the company’s latest US campaign, called Race Together, which seeks to start discussions between baristas and customers feels misplaced.

The second location of Starbucks in Seattle wa...

Firstly, let me say I don’t doubt that it is motivated by the right reasons, rather than a desire to differentiate or for marketing purposes. It follows extensive staff open meetings where partners (staff) have discussed the whole situation of race in the USA after high-profile cases involving the police and black citizens in New York and Ferguson, Missouri, amongst other places. And in many ways it goes back to the original purpose of coffee houses as venues for, often raucous, debate and discussion.

However as the overwhelmingly negative feedback on social media confirms, a 21st century chain coffee shop is not the place to have a measured discussion on a topic as sensitive and nuanced as race. As one tweet put it, “I don’t have time to explain 400 years of oppression to you & still make my train.” I’d agree – as someone that absolutely refuses to give my name when ordering a coffee, being forced into talking about a difficult subject, no matter how important, with someone I don’t know is not my cup of tea. I’d say there are four reasons it feels like the wrong place for this type of communication:

1          Fit with purpose
People go into a coffee shop to get a drink, and while they may have an unprompted chat with a barista, it is more likely to be about sports or the weather than race. They aren’t necessarily in a mood to talk to anyone until they’ve had their first coffee of the day, and if they are would prefer to choose the subject themselves. And how can you have a long discussion about a complex subject in the couple of minutes it takes for your coffee to be ready?

2          Unbalanced relationship
There is also a monetary transaction involved – it doesn’t feel like an equal conversation when one person is a customer and is paying. A discussion that could be had on an equal footing outside Starbucks most definitely can’t be seen the same way within the coffee shop.

3          Training and knowledge
Baristas at Starbucks haven’t received any special training in debating, and are of course still expected to carry on doing their jobs while engaging customers in discussion. Notwithstanding the potential impact on the coffee they are making, the risk is that they are out-argued by customers on specific points, adding to the issue, rather than helping solve it.

4          Risk to reputation
As a communications professional I’d also look at the risk to Starbucks’ reputation. It is easy to be very British about Race Together and just write it off as patronising, ignoring the genuine American issue behind it, and the more open US culture of discussing your life with complete strangers. But you have to look at the slew of negative tweets and articles to see that many Americans were not impressed. Additionally, given the global nature of the brand, a campaign in the US has an impact across the world, affecting the attitudes of coffee drinkers in other countries.

Most of all it reminds me of a Monty Python sketch, where Michael Palin pays John Cleese to have an argument. It deteriorates rapidly into just contradiction and is ended by a combination of the police and some wooden mallets. I’m not suggesting that the same approach is necessary in Starbucks’ case, but it needs to focus its efforts differently if it wants to get its message across and a proper discussion started.

March 25, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Publish and be damned

The old saying is that everyone has a book in them – it is just a question of sitting down, writing it, finding a publisher, marketing and then selling it. That used to be the hard part but technology is changing this, making the whole process easier. No wonder that UK publishers released 184,000 new and revised titles in 2013 – the equivalent of 20 books an hour, which means the country published more books per inhabitant than any other nation. In the US 1.4m print books were released in 2013 – over five times as many as 2003. That figure excludes anything self-published, pushing the total up even further.

English: The second generation Amazon Kindle, ...

 

So, what is driving this growth – and what does it mean for publishers? There are essentially four ways technology is making the writing and publishing process easier:

1          Writing and editing
The platforms for editing and proofing manuscripts are now predominantly online. This makes it easier for a single editor at a publishing house to work with multiple authors, and also allows the different parts of the process to be subcontracted to copyeditors, designers and proof readers.

2          Publishing the book
The rise of ereaders like Amazon’s Kindle mean that books don’t physically need to be printed. This speeds up the publishing process as it removes the sole manual, mechanical and time consuming part of it – getting ink onto paper. Technology is also changing physical printing, with short runs a lot more feasible due to digital printing.

3          Distribution channels
The rise of ecommerce has decimated high street book shops, and has concentrated power in the hands of online retailers. Whatever the consequences for the public, this makes the job of authors easier as they can promote their book and simply direct potential buyers to Amazon. If they route them through their own website they can even collect affiliate fees. No need to keep an enormous box of books in the spare room and then laboriously pack and post each one to fulfil an order.

4          Marketing
With this increased competition from more and more new titles, the job of an author is now more about marketing than ever before. As this piece in The Economist points out, authors have to be much savvier about the different ways of promoting their tome, from gruelling book tours to ensuring that it is stocked/sold in the right stores to make particular bestseller lists. A lot of this comes down to brand – if you have built up a following and people know who you are, it gives you a headstart in shifting copies. Hence the enormous number of ghost written celebrity biographies released every Christmas and the high sales of books ‘written’ by Katie Price.

Social media gives the perfect opportunity to develop that brand, before putting pen to paper. Promotion of Ann Hawkins and Ed Goodman’s excellent New Business: Next Steps, a guide to developing your fledgling business, was helped by the community and following the authors had previously built on social media. Cambridge Marketing College (CMC) is self-publishing academic books, based on its existing reputation, large numbers of alumni and the shrinking costs of digital printing. Due to its ongoing courses, CMC knows where there are gaps in the market for textbooks, and can therefore exploit them. The key points here are that the brand and following were created first, rather than trying to launch a book and create a buzz from scratch at the same time.

The changing market also begs the question – do we need publishers anymore? After all, the costs to publish a book, either physically or digitally, are much lower than ever before. This means that publishers need to up their game, adding value across the entire process and embracing digital techniques to help find and promote authors, crowdsource ideas and use technology to push down their costs. Otherwise smaller publishers without a defined niche risk being pushed aside by well-developed brands that can use technology to find gaps, develop the right content and market it professionally. The publishing market is changing rapidly – the only sure thing is that the number of new titles will continue to rise.

February 25, 2015 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Would we Like a social media election?

We’re now well into the General Election campaign and commentators are examining which media politicians are going to use with engage with voters. I’ve already talked about the debacle around the televised debates, which David Cameron is doing his best to scupper, but what of social media?

Rt Hon David Cameron, MP, Conservative Party l...

Rt Hon David Cameron, MP, Conservative Party leader, during his visit to Oxfam headquarters in Oxford. Full version. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Predictions that the last election would revolve around social media were wide of the mark, proving less like Obama’s #Yeswecan campaign and more akin to a series of embarrassing mistakes perpetrated by politicians and their aides who’d obviously never used Twitter before. This has continued with further gaffes, such as ex-shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry’s patronising tweet during the Rochester and Strood by-election that cost the Labour frontbencher her job.

However, there are already signs that social media will pay a bigger role in this election. For a start, social media is a good way of reaching the core 18-24 demographic that is currently disengaged from politics. 56% of this age group didn’t vote at the last election, so winning their support could be crucial in a contest that is currently too close to call.

We are also in an election where the core support of the traditional big two parties is being swayed by the rise of UKIP, the SNP and the Greens. So, rather than just appealing to floating voters in a certain number of swing seats, the Conservatives and Labour both need to demonstrate to their supporters that they understand their concerns and have policies to win them over. This means that they are likely to be more aggressive than in the past, judging that alienating the middle ground is a price worth paying for retaining traditional voters.

How this plays out generally will be fascinating, but what can social media provide? Early indications suggest there are six areas where it will be most used:

1. Attacking the opposition
Unlike offline or TV advertising, social media is largely unregulated. Which means you can get away with more online – for example, the Tory party is financing 30 second pre-roll “attack” ads on YouTube the content of which would be banned on TV. Given the desire to reassure core voters, expect tactics like this to be used even more as the campaign unfolds.

2. Managing the real-time news cycle
CNN brought about the 24 hour a day news cycle. Twitter has changed that to give minute-by-minute, real-time news. Stories can gain traction incredibly quickly, and fade with the same speed. Parties will therefore look to try and control (or at the very least manage) social media during the campaign, monitoring for trends that they can piggyback and starting stories of their own. And given that the media will also be monitoring what politicians are saying, expect a rash of stories with a shelf life of minutes and hours, rather than days and weeks.

3. Reaching voters
One of the most powerful parts of social media is the demographic profiling it provides advertisers with. This means that spending on advertising can be extremely targeted towards potential supporters, with little wastage. Figures obtained by the BBC show that the Tories are on course to spend over a million pounds on Facebook during the course of the election, based on current activities. Of course, reaching voters is one thing, the next step is to actively engage with them, starting conversations, listening and responding to their concerns. That takes time and skill, so expect a lot of effort to be thrown at content and conversations.

4. Monitoring voting patterns
There’s a lot of excitement about Big Data, and in particular how you can draw insights from the conversations happening on social media. Party strategists will be able to monitor what is trending on networks, and then use this feedback to evolve or change their strategies to focus on areas that are resonating with particular groups. However this sort of monitoring is still in its infancy, so results will need to be cross-checked before parties decide to do a U-turn on key policies.

5. Amplifying success
Third party endorsement is always welcome, so politicians will look to share and publicise content, such as news stories, that position them in a good light, and also encourage their supporters to do the same. This has already happened with celebrity interviews with the likes of Ant and Dec and Myleene Klass. However, as journalist Sean Hargrave points out, the Tories have a problem here – much of the right leaning media (The Sun, The Times and Daily Telegraph) are behind full or partial paywalls, making sharing difficult. In contrast the likes of The Guardian, Mirror and Independent are completely free and design content to be as shareable as possible. That just leaves the Tories with the Daily Mail……..

6. Making it bitesize
Like any modern digital campaign, the election will run on content. And to appeal to time-poor voters it will need to be carved up into bitesize chunks, such as blogs, Vines, Tweets and Facebook posts. Politicians are meant to be masters of the soundbite, so this should be just a question of transferring their offline skills to the digital world.

Social media will definitely be more of a battleground at this election, if only because more people are on Twitter, Facebook and other networks compared to 2010. Parties and politicians will look to adopt the tactics above, but with varying degrees of success. Some, such as those that have been engaging with voters for years, will do it well, but expect more gaffes from those that don’t understand the difference between a public tweet and a private direct message and decide to show the world pictures of their underwear…………or worse.

February 18, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Will Facebook at Work work?

Last week, Facebook launched Facebook At Work, its latest attempt to bring the social network into the enterprise business mainstream. Cue lots of commentators prophesying doom for the likes of LinkedIn as the social networking behemoth pushed into the world of work.

Facebook logo Español: Logotipo de Facebook Fr...

On a closer look, LinkedIn shouldn’t be too worried, as Facebook At Work is more about collaboration and sharing inside an organisation, rather than looking for new jobs outside the office. In fact it is more of a rival for the likes of Yammer and Huddle.

The other point to note is that this isn’t the first time that Facebook has tried to embrace the enterprise. Back in January 2011, Mark Zuckerberg launched BranchOut, then touted as a rival for LinkedIn. This built a network on top of your Facebook contacts and aimed to find and match you with job opportunities. BranchOut seems to be still going, but is now billed as “letting people capture and share everyday moments in the workplace through photos, news and updates.” While it claims 30 million users, compare that to the 300m+ who have profiles on LinkedIn.

The other factor to bear in mind is the notorious difficulty of getting mainstream workers to adopt collaboration tools, no matter how compelling the user interface or functionality. I remember trying to introduce an intranet into a relatively small organisation and just giving up as no-one wanted to use it, despite the benefits it brought.

So why is Facebook trying again? I can see three benefits for the company – though at least one of them has nothing to do with work……….

1. Add more subscribers
Facebook claims over 24 million active daily users in the UK. This sounds impressive, but that is less than half the population. Obviously some of these holdouts are children, but I’d guess that a fair number are actually the very workers that Facebook At Work is aimed at. While you can keep your Work and personal Facebook accounts separate, I’m sure the company is hoping that a fair proportion of those using the platform in the office will be seduced into setting up a profile for out of hours use. So the social network will get an influx of new members, with the corresponding demographic data and potential revenues that this adds.

2. Easy to use interface
As I’ve said getting workers to use collaboration tools can be like pulling hen’s teeth. But for those already on Facebook I wager that the new At Work interface won’t be very different, encouraging its adoption. This, rather than functionality, will probably be the strongest selling point, when Facebook starts encouraging business use.

3. Spoiling for a fight
While LinkedIn has been successful in many areas, there’s still a huge opportunity in the market. LinkedIn members at present tend to be in professional roles, with a large part of the world of work un-networked. The company itself realises this and is adding a wider range of job ads for roles such as checkout operators and delivery drivers, often directly linked from employer’s websites. Coming from the personal social network space, Facebook believes it can also fill this gap, with the first step being to get within the enterprise and cosy up to HR people through bridgehead initiatives such as At Work.

The benefits for Facebook are clear, but with the network effect being less important for businesses, I’m not sure what the advantages are for the enterprise. Worries about the confidentiality of documents have already been raised, and it would take some strong policing to avoid people slacking off and reading their personal Facebook timelines rather than collaborating internally. Watch this space to see if Facebook can move into the enterprise at its second attempt.

January 21, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Moving back to a medieval economy?

Map of medieval Rome depicting the Colosseum.

Map of medieval Rome depicting the Colosseum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My very first blog post, four and a half years ago, talked about how social media had parallels with how people worked in medieval times. Essentially as a worker you attracted business through personal recommendation – do a good job and you’d get more work. Do a bad job for the Lord of the Manor, and you could well be clapped in irons. The industrial age changed all that, with companies mass producing goods or services and the personal link disappearing from many professions. No-one knew if you’d done a good job in your cubicle –the chance to express your individuality was simply not there in a lot of sectors.

In the same way that social media is changing how we interact with companies and how they market to us, the internet is also changing how we work. As a recent piece in The Economist pointed out, we’re increasingly becoming a freelance-based economy, with skilled workers now available on tap to complete specific tasks, with no need to employ them full time. Figures from the Freelancers Union claim that 1 in 3 members of the American workforce do some freelance work.

The internet and smartphone apps mean a business can now find someone to do everything from research a new product to provide legal advice or consulting. Many routine tasks, even in knowledge-based businesses, can either be outsourced or digitised, so why go to the trouble and expense of employing someone to do it? And for those businesses that worry about quality, the platforms that deliver these people will have vetted them and you can read reviews from previous customers.

This is going back to the medieval model – with skilled artisans and craftspeople available to work directly for their end customers, rather than toiling in a factory or office for a regular salary. On the plus side, it delivers freedom and flexibility to those with the right skills. On the other hand, the vast majority of the medieval working population were itinerant labourers, turning up where there might be a job and hoping they’d get picked. Essentially, not much different to a modern zero hours contract, which is the flipside of the freelance economy.

There’s also multiple other challenges to address, both for freelancers themselves and the wider country. I know that as a freelance it is up to me to market myself, provide for my own retirement, sort out my work financial affairs and keep my skills up to date. If I don’t work, through illness or holiday, I don’t get paid. All of these are things that previously my employer would have provided for me as part of the contract between us. For me, that’s not too much of an issue, but for others (thinking again of zero hours contracts), what happens when they reach retirement age without private pension provision? The state will need to provide, where previously an employer did. Education will have to teach people to think in new ways, so that they can pick up skills throughout their working life, rather than training them to do the same thing for their whole career.

The other challenge is that the freelance economy needs corporate businesses in order to survive. Firstly, it is where it recruits many of its members, who’ve got their training within a large organisation and then decided to strike out on their own. Working for a large company not only provides a positive endorsement of quality on a CV but also gives access to an ecosystem of potential assignments within the company and its peers.

Secondly, freelances need larger companies (and those that work for them) as a market. Whether it is selling to organisations that have a specific skills gap or providing on-demand services to the salaried (in the US you can get everything from food, to taxis (Uber) and home cleaning at the touch of a smartphone screen).

Take away this infrastructure and you remove the market and the skills – in fact, essentially moving back to the medieval model. The main difference is now, with the internet, you don’t just have access to your village carpenter, but potentially millions of them all over the world. Like any change there will be winners and losers, but it is important to look at the negatives as well as the benefits before we fully embrace the on-demand world.

January 14, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Social Media, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Social networks – command and control centres for terrorists?

It wasn’t that long ago that the only spies in the public eye were James Bond and prominent Cold War defectors. But over recent years high-ranking intelligence chiefs have stepped out of the shadows to appear in public, write books and give interviews. They’ll be inviting the public to tour MI5 or the Pentagon next. It all seems a bit counter-intuitive as I’d have thought keeping a low profile was one of the key skills that intelligence agencies were looking for.

Some of the satellite dishes at GCHQ Bude, in ...

The latest spy to break cover is Robert Hannigan, the new head of GCHQ. In an interview with the Financial Times to mark starting in his new role he lambasted social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, calling them “command-and-control networks for terrorists and criminals.” One of his key concerns is the spread of encryption techniques on common mobile phone operating systems – both Apple and Google have recently made encryption a standard feature that users can opt-out of rather than having to opt-in to use.

This is obviously good for privacy, but bad for those looking to monitor the activities of terrorist cells. In his article Hannigan issued a plea for more openness and collaboration between tech companies and the security services.

But in my opinion he’s overlooking two major factors. Firstly, demonising social media is a bit like criticising the telephone network for being used to plan a bank robbery. It is, as tech companies claim, an agnostic platform. If the police suspect a crime is being committed (or planned) there are processes in place to work with a social network to assist them in their enquiries. Normal people don’t see Facebook as a threat to their safety – though, given what some seem happy to share online, perhaps they should.

And secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is a lack of trust in the security services. The revelations of Edward Snowden showed, as many suspected, that our online activities are being spied on. Recent revelations about police being able to access the telephone records of journalists without needing a warrant using Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) legislation just add to this.

The trouble with the whole debate about online privacy is that it is becoming increasingly polarised. On the one hand social networks support their ‘free’ business model by collecting and selling data on the interests of their users, allowing them to be targeted with ads. Then at the other end of the spectrum the security services are demanding more access to the very same data. The people in the middle are the users, the vast majority of whom have no idea of how much they are being tracked when they go about their business online. What is needed is more education so that it is clearer about how they can legitimately protect themselves online, rather than both sides scaremongering about the other. Terrorism is a threat to a free internet, but equally so is draconian, untargeted snooping by intelligence agencies and the erosion of user privacy by the networks that we rely on.

 

November 5, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wandering lonely as a smartphone

Can you remember life before the internet? While your response obviously depends on your age (I can recall fax machines, video recorders and black and white TVs), the number of people in the world with analogue memories is dropping. For example, just comparing my time at university twenty years ago (no mobile phones, no email, handwritten essays) with students today demonstrates a real gap in experiences.

English: Daffodil Daffodil.

English: Daffodil Daffodil. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This sobering question is the basis of a new book by Canadian journalist Michael Harris. In “The End of Absence: Reclaiming what we’ve lost in a world of constant connection,” he starts from the premise that soon, nobody will remember life before the internet. It is easy to point to what we have gained in terms of access to unrivalled amounts of information, available instantly at the push of a button or a swipe of our smartphone screen.

However, as Harris points out, we’ve also lost out in multiple areas. We experience our world through technology, with a screen or camera between us and the real world. This combines with the ability to meet all our wants much more easily and faster than ever before. We can buy things quickly, communicate instantly and indulge our wants without having to wait or often make much effort. And this has a knock on effect – we should be satisfied, but we don’t have time as we’re onto the next thing. The risk, as Harris says, is that we believe that things matter less, simply because they are easy to achieve.

The other impact of the internet, and in particular mobile devices, is that we don’t have the opportunity to be bored or to appreciate the world around us. We lose our sense of wonder, as rather than studying a bird building a nest while we wait for the bus, we’re checking our email. Rather than writing about wandering lonely as a cloud, would Wordsworth today be taking selfies of himself with daffodils and posting it on Instagram? We’re always connected and continually worried that we’re going to miss out on the Next Big Thing.

On the positive side, I think Harris isn’t alone in understanding the need to disconnect. I see an increasing number of people running, cycling or walking, and while they use technology to show where they are, listen to music and see the speed they are going, they are at least unhooked from the broader internet for a few minutes at least. But what we need are more opportunities for solitude and day dreaming. When was the last time you did nothing without worrying about what you are missing out on?

It is easy to come across as a Luddite when it comes to being concerned about the impact of technology – after all I’m typing this blog on a PC, posting it online and then shouting about it on social media. However, as Harris’s book argues, it is probably time to take a hard look at what we risk losing with the onward march of technology and to take action (or should that be inaction) to reclaim solitude, human to human interaction and a bit of plain idleness.

September 10, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Big Brother is manipulating you?

As anyone that has read George Orwell’s 1984 knows, the ability to rewrite history and manipulate information is at the heart of controlling behaviour. As communist Russia showed, people could simply be airbrushed from the official account and would vanish from the public consciousness. 1984

Of course, in the age of social media, the web, and 24 hour global media, this ability to control news should have disappeared. If a government blocks a site or a mobile phone network, there are ways around it that spread information quickly, bypassing attempted censorship.

However, I’d argue that the reverse has happened and that Big Brother can operate stealthily in two ways. Firstly, rumours can start and spread unchecked, with the majority of us not taking the time to get to the original source, instead believing something that has been retweeted or shared on Facebook. I’ve had people swear blind to me that a major incident took place ‘because I saw it on Facebook’ – though I can’t believe they’d be as credulous if a random stranger told them the same story down the pub. By the time the truth is out, immeasurable damage can be done – to a company’s brand or share price or a person’s reputation.

Secondly, we believe what our computers tell us, and act accordingly, particularly when it chimes with our own preconceptions. Essentially we think that the complex algorithms that control what appears on our screens are unbiased, rather than reflecting what the site owner has determined in some way.

This leaves us open to manipulation, whether by marketers trying to sell us things or more sinister experiments. Facebook received justified criticism for running an experiment where it tampered with the stories in people’s timelines, seeing what the impact would be on what users themselves wrote. Unsurprisingly the percentage of negative or positive posts had a direct link to the tone and language people used in their own posts.

Now dating site OKCupid has admitted that it experimented on its users. This included deliberately pairing up unsuitable couples and telling them that they were a perfect match to see what would happen. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little serendipity, but deliberate meddling risks breaking the trust between a site and its users. Throwing in a wildcard of “here’s someone completely unlike you, but why not see what happens if you meet?” is one thing if it is advertised, but quite another if it is hidden behind the veil of computer processing.

Some might argue that this is just a next step in techniques such as Nudge, where choices are ordered in a way to drive particular outcomes. These are supposedly for the greater good. For example, if diners come to the salad bar first in a cafeteria they eat more healthy stuff and if you automatically enrol people in pensions, they tend not to take the opportunity to opt out. But I’d say it goes much further than this, and is about trust.

In many ways breaches of trust are similar to security breaches – something that the user relied upon unthinkingly has been removed, calling into question the entire relationship they have with a company. And like trust in any relationship, it is a time-consuming and difficult process to rebuild it.

So, anyone involved in marketing, media or technology does have a responsibility to be as open and transparent as they can be. At the very least there are legal safeguards (such as the Data Protection Act) that need to be obeyed, but I think companies need to go further than that. We live in a world where people want to have a genuine relationship with brands that they respect and trust, rather than the transactional, one-sided versions of the past. Therefore organisations need to think first about the consequences of experimenting on their users before playing Big Brother with their lives.

July 30, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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